Make Tracks Through Blair

On October 15, 2017 · 1 Comments

Our first day in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania went so well that I wondered how I would top it. Its neighbor, Blair County gave it a good run for the money though. I came up with a really good one-day itinerary too, all aligned with a railroad theme. On top of that it followed a leisurely route, covering just thirty miles (fifty kilometres) in its entirety.

I warned the kids they’d probably get tired of trains by the end of the day although they seemed to enjoy it. Well, not the last stop. We dropped them off at the hotel before that one.

Allegheny Portage Railroad


Allegheny Portage Railroad
Allegheny Portage Railroad

I talked enough about the Allegheny Portage Railroad recently so I’ll just summarize things briefly. Canals on opposing sides of the Allegheny Mountains faced a dilemma. Quite simply, water didn’t flow uphill. Entrepreneurs developed an inventive solution though. They loaded canal boats onto rail cars and tugged them up and over the hills with pulleys similar to tow ropes found on modern ski slopes (map). Primitive railroad engines (photo) pulled the loaded cars between inclines. This inventive portage across the gap measured nearly 37 miles (60 km) between Hollidaysburg and Johnstown.

The Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site preserved the remains of Incline 6, at the system’s elevation summit right on the Eastern Continental Divide. This included a reconstruction of an Engine House that powered a rope (later a wire) on a loop. Cars attached to the rope so they could travel uphill or downhill depending on where they were heading.

Then we walked down a wide grassy path along where the railroad once ran. This led down to the Skew Arch Bridge (photo). Here, the Huntington, Cambria and Indiana Turnpike used to cross above the railroad. Teamsters pulling wagons on the turnpike had trouble making 90 degree turns so builders placed a bridge at an oblique angle. That skew provided the bridge’s name.

Back uphill, we walked a short distance past the Engine House to a home built by Samuel Lemon in the early 1830’s (photo). There he operated a popular tavern catering to travelers on the portage. County lines followed the summit through here so I claim a bonus county — Cambria! — simply by walking to the Lemon House.

An Optional Site

We passed one more site soon after we left the park, a turnoff for the Gallitzin Tunnels Park & Museum. I didn’t know about it ahead of time so we’d already passed it before it dawned on me. It would have been a good stop. The original tunnel built there in 1854 spelled the end of the Allegheny Portage Railroad and its canals. Nobody needed them once a train could cover the same territory a lot quicker.


Horseshoe Curve


Horseshoe Curve
Horseshoe Curve

Next came Horseshoe Curve. All of the promotional material described the curve (map) as "World Famous" so I took them at their word. It did impress me. Here, three tracks hugged the hillside, providing a manageable grade all the way to the Allegheny summit a few miles away. This became one of the most heavily used tracks in the United States when it opened, a position it still held more than a century and a half later. There simply weren’t that many good places to cross the mountains.

A visitor center included a small museum although the curve itself was the main attraction. Railfans came out in force. They sat in lawn chairs with their cameras and video equipment, waiting for each train to rumble along. It truly was an impressive spectacle. I felt surrounded by trains as they wrapped around the curve. We even got to experience two trains descending simultaneously, a coal train moving slowly as an intermodal train passed it.

A Funicular Too!


Horseshoe Curve
Funiculars Passing at Horseshoe Curve Park

The visitor center rested at the base of the hill while the train spotting area sat farther uphill next to the tracks. People could either walk up a long flight of stairs or take the funicular. This offered a nice little attraction while making the park handicapped accessible. Who wouldn’t want to ride the funicular, anyway? It didn’t compare to my adventures on the Monongahela Incline in Pittsburgh although it seemed to fit nicely within the rail theme of the day. This one featured a single set of tracks that split apart as the counterweighted cars passed each other.


Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum


Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum
Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum

The same group that managed the Horseshoe Curve viewing area also managed the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum in town. We got the combo ticket for both and saved a few bucks. Until I toured the museum (map) I didn’t truly appreciate the importance of the Pennsylvania Railroad to the city of Altoona. Essentially, Altoona wouldn’t have existed otherwise. The railroad founded Altoona at a strategic point at the base of the Allegheny crossing. It later built the Altoona Works there, a massive facility used to build, test, repair and maintain locomotives. More than 16,000 people labored at the Altoona Works during its highpoint in the 1920’s.

The Pennsy influenced practically every facet of Altoona, about as close to a company town as one could imagine. However Altoona began its decline earlier than many Rust Belt cities. First came the Great Depression. Then came the railroad’s switch from steam power to diesel locomotives. The new locomotives required much less maintenance and many fewer laborers at the Altoona Works. Finally came a general decline in railroading altogether. Altoona reached a peak population in 1930 when 83,000 people lived there. It dropped residents in every Census thereafter, leaving an estimated population of 45,000 by 2016.


Railroad City Brewing Company


Railroad City Brewing Company
Railroad City Brewing Company

We wrapped up the day, continuing the railroad theme, with a visit to Railroad City Brewing Company in downtown Altoona (map). Somehow that seemed appropriate.

We called our visit to Blair County a success.

Body Parts

On October 5, 2017 · 2 Comments

The more I thought about it, apparently body parts influenced an awful lot of geographic names. It seemed natural though. People liked to name things after familiar objects. What could be more familiar than the flesh right there in front of them? From head to feet and practically everywhere in between, I found spots on the map that shared those names. I focused on a small sample of some of the more interesting references.

Foot


A Portage to Freedom
A Portage to Freedom via TradingCardsNPS on Flickr (cc)

The name that began this latest search appeared in Pennsylvania. Imagine living in a place called Foot of Ten (map). Within this unincorporated village stood the Foot of Ten Independent Baptist Church. Its website solved the mystery.

The Pennsylvania Legislature authorized construction of a canal between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in 1826. This would do more than simply connect two cities, it would open a trade route between the eastern seaboard and the frontier. Pittsburgh offered direct access to the Ohio and Mississippi River watersheds. However, builders faced a problem, the Eastern Continental Divide atop the Allegheny Mountains. Tunnels or locks would not be feasible on such a massive scale.

Instead, the builders borrowed an idea from England, the use of inclined planes. I mentioned such structures in Tunnels, Bridges, Lifts and Inclines a few years ago. Here the solution became the Allegheny Portage Railroad. Barges loaded onto rail cars and went through a series of ten inclined planes; five uphill and five downhill. Then they resumed their canal ride on the other side. Pulleys and ropes helped move loaded rail cars between inclines, up and over the ridge. They named each incline numerically, from one to ten. A little village sprouted at the foot of Incline Ten. Not being terribly original, the village became Foot of Ten.


Knee


Wounded Knee South Dakota
Wounded Knee South Dakota. Photo by Adam Singer on Flickr (cc)

Wounded Knee leapt immediately to mind as I considered noteworthy examples. Wounded Knee Creek flowed into the White River in southwestern South Dakota (map). The name originated exactly as I thought. Rival groups of Native Americans clashed at that spot somewhere in the long forgotten past and one of the men suffered a wound to his knee. Thus, Wounded Knee. Those events happened well before Wounded Knee entered the lexicon for an entirely different reason.

Historians used to call an infamous 1890 incident the "Battle of Wounded Knee." More contemporary interpretations labeled it the "Wounded Knee Massacre." The exact sequence of events will likely never be known. By one account it began when U.S. Cavalry soldiers attempted to disarm members of the Lakota tribe at their encampment. One member of the tribe, being deaf, did not understand the soldiers’ intent. A struggle for his rifle and a possible accidental discharge began a shooting spree on both sides. The soldiers didn’t stop firing until 150 Lakota, including unarmed women and children, lay dead upon the frozen ground.


Backbone


Devils Backbone - Outpost
Devils Backbone – Outpost. My own Photo.

In Virginia, the small Devils Backbone brewery grew quickly, eventually large enough to be purchased by Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2016. I’ve been to both their original brewpub location in Roseland and their "Outpost" production brewery outside of Lexington during my beer wanderings. Naturally I wondered about the unusual name. Did it come from the geography of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains?


JeffFryDetail
Fry-Jefferson map” of Virginia (1751) via Wikimedia Commons, in the Public Domain

Actually, the name did indeed and it tied to a rather notable colonial-era accomplishment. The brewery’s website explained further.

On September 25, 1746, eight years before the French and Indian War, a party of forty set out from Bear Fence Mountain in the Blue Ridge on one of the most legendary land surveys in American history… Their task was to carve and measure a straight line, eighty-miles long through the wilderness, connecting the sources of the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers. This line was known as "The Fairfax Line."

I visited the northwestern terminus of that line at the Fairfax Stone last year.

The Geographic Names Information System listed several different Devils Backbones just in Virginia alone. Looking at the Fry-Jefferson Map of 1751, the one inspiring the brewery seemed to be the ridge on the western flank of the Shenandoah Valley (map). The survey line crossed what they called "The North Ridge alias the Devil’s Back Bone." not too far west of current Mount Jackson, the town with the awesome water tower.


Finger


Cayuga Lake
Cayuga Lake. My own photo.

So many interesting places existed throughout the world that I generally don’t travel to the same place more than once. I’ve made an exception for the Finger Lakes of New York. I’ve explored the region twice and I’d love to get there a third time. It’s that beautiful. These lakes earned their name for their appearance, like fingers pressed upon the earth.



Glaciation, as one might expect, created these lakes. Glaciers during the most recent ice age pushed down through north-south valleys. Their southward flow accentuated these valleys and left deep, broad troughs behind. They also pushed debris to their farthest extremes. When the glaciers retreated, those large debris moraines became natural dams. Water filled the troughs, and behold, the Finger Lakes appeared. Creeks and rivers left hanging after ice retreated created amazing waterfalls like Taughannock Falls, Watkins Glen and Buttermilk Falls.


So Many More

I could go on-and-on although it’s probably time to stop. Heads, teeth, mouths, elbows and lots of other body parts appeared across the landscape. I so wanted to add Liverpool. Unfortunately, Liverpool was not named for the liver. It came from the Old English word "lifer," meaning "thick, clotted water." Yuk. Even a liver sounded more attractive.

What the Hill

On September 28, 2017 · 3 Comments

My wife keeps signing me up for running races. I guess she wants some company during her crazy pursuits. It seems harmless enough so I join her even if I’d rather be doing something less competitive. Those are the kinds of compromises one makes to keep peace in the house, and we’ve been together a long time so something must be working. Anyway she got a great discount on a whole series of races sponsored by a local running store because she bought them as a set. Wait, is this a geography blog or a running blog? Don’t worry, I’ll work geography into this. They’ll share equal billing while I examine an interesting overlap.

Clarendon Day


Clarendon Day 5K
Clarendon Day 5K. Photo by John Sonderman on Flickr (cc)

The Clarendon Day 5K in Arlington, Virginia came next in the series (map). My wife actually ran both the 5K and the 10K back-to-back, although as I mentioned, sometimes I question her sanity. Nonetheless, 5 kilometres (3.1 miles) seemed quite enough for me on Sunday. We could walk to the starting line from our house so I couldn’t find a reasonable excuse to skip it even if I tried.

Running came to me only recently — really the last couple of years — although I enjoyed hiking, biking and other outdoor activities well before that. I discovered pretty quickly that I could run decently well, at a respectable pace although not spectacularly, and I generally finished just barely within the top ten percent for my age group. Ditto for Clarendon Day, 4th out of 48 in the geezer man category.

I got a great time, shaving almost a full minute from my Personal Record, finishing in 20:46 with a 6:41 mile pace. I’d never completed a 5K with a time of 20 minutes in front of it nor managed to keep a pace with a 6 in front of it until then. How was that even possible? Gravity.


Clarendon Day Elevation
Clarendon Day 5K Elevation Elevation
via Pacers Running

Some readers might remember the race I described in Regurgitated. I ran down that same steep hill and then back up! This time the course only went down the hill. I wanted to finish with a sub-20 which is one of those iconic 5K milestone times. Sadly, I think I left any possibility of that behind me long before I took up running. I’ll have to be content with those age adjusting calculators. They said I might have finished sub-20 if only I ran a couple of decades ago.


St. George Marathon


Finish Line
Finish Line. Photo by Nate Grigg on Flickr (cc)

Using gravity seemed almost like cheating. However, those times counted just like any others certified by USA Track and Field and other organizations. People have long used terrain to boost their PR’s especially for marathons. I heard of a race awhile ago that went almost completely downhill, the St. George Marathon. This point-to-point race (map) ran from the Pine Valley mountains into the city of St. George, Utah. In this marathon, runners began at an elevation of 5,240 feet (1,600 metres) and finished at 2,680 feet (815 metres). Nearly eight thousand runners signed up for this event held each October.

I don’t know how they could do it. My quads felt tight after the steep mile of my little neighborhood 5K. I couldn’t imagine how one would feel after running downhill for a full marathon. They probably couldn’t walk for a week.


Mount Charleston Marathon


Mount Charleston, Nevada (35)
Mount Charleston, Nevada. Photo by billy kerr on flickr (cc)

Just a couple of weeks ago, someone I know told me he intended to run the REVEL Mt Charleston marathon next April in Las Vegas, Nevada. This one descended even more rapidly than St. George on its path from mountaintop to city streets (map). Runners began at 7,633 feet (2,325 metres) and finished at 2,507 feet (765 metres), dropping nearly a mile in elevation. Race organizers described it as "incredibly fast and remarkably beautiful."

Why would people subject themselves to such a sustained and drastic 4% downhill? The organizers left no doubt.

Featuring a smooth downhill slope and spectacular scenery in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, this race will be sure to help you set your PR and finally hit that Boston Qualifying time

They even offered a helpful chart that showed finishers at Mt. Charleston averaged 3:57:26 versus 4:28:54 for those at St. George. This race was all about people wanting to qualify for the Boston Marathon. That was the exact reason why my acquaintance will head to Las Vegas too. His current times fell just shy of BQ and he needed that extra boost.


Apparently This is a Thing

Plenty of other downhill marathons hoped to scratch that same itch. It’s quite an honor to qualify for Boston and BQ times are brutal. A simple understanding of geography and terrain could make all the difference between running Boston next year or watching from the sidelines. Just the first page of search engine results produced a long list of possibilities.

I don’t have a burning desire to run a marathon. However, if I do someday, I doubt I could ever achieve a BQ time even with a sharply downhill course. Maybe I could age into it though. The 80 and Over BQ seemed reasonable if I can hold things together long enough.

Purpose
12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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